"I might have known you were a horsewoman. Do you ride much?"
"The Doctor doesn't care for it, I suppose?"
She flashed a questioning glance at him, then she looked away:
"No," she said, "he doesn't care for it."
Cropsie Decker, who had been hovering in her vicinity, now came up and claimed the next number.
"There's a bully little corner in the conservatory where we can sit out this waltz. You won't mind if I carry her off, Mr. Horton?"
"Not if she takes to heart some of the wise things I've been telling her," said Horton, looking at her through his narrow eyes and pulling at his small, fair mustache. "Au revoir, Madame Beaux Yeux!"
Miss Lady did not move from the spot where he left her. Out under the palms in the hall, the orchestra was beginning one of Strauss' most distracting waltzes; her fingers tapped the time. Suddenly she held out her hand to Cropsie.
"I can't stand it another minute! I've got to dance once if I never dance again!"
Every eye in the ballroom followed the slender figure, as it circled in and out among the throng. Miss Lady danced with the grace and abandonment of a child. She had given herself utterly to the joy of the moment. She was letting herself go for the first time since her marriage, following the glad impulse of her heart, and dancing as a Bacchante might have danced alone on a moonlight night in some forest glade.
When at last the music stopped Cropsie drew her into the conservatory.
"Here, come around this palm, quick! They'll all be after you for the next dance. Gerald Ivy is charging around now looking for you, and so is Mr. Horton. Sit there in the window and cool off!"
She sank laughing and breathless on the window sill. All the exhilaration of the dance was in her eyes, her lips were parted, her cheeks flushed, and a strand of loosened hair fell across her shoulder.
It was at this moment that wheels sounded on the driveway below, caused her to lean idly out to see who was coming. A wagon stopped at the side entrance, and a man alighted. Uncle Jimpson's voice was heard asking a question, then came the other man's voice, in quick, incisive answer.
Miss Lady, sitting motionless, looking down, turned suddenly from the window. The color had left her face and her hand trembled visibly against the curtain.
"What's the matter?" cried Cropsie; "are you ill? Did you dance too long?"
"It's nothing, I'm all right. That is I will be—"
"Can't I get you some water, or an ice, or call Mrs. Sequin?"
"No, no, please! It's nothing. I'll slip off to the dressing-room until I feel better. I can go through here up the side stairs."
"Wait, I'll go with you. You are as white as if you'd seen a ghost!"
But before he could join her she had disappeared into mysterious regions where he dared not follow.
During the course of that Christmas night, there was one member of the Sequin household who failed to thrill with the holiday spirit, and whose depression steadily increased as the evening wore on. The great occasion of which Uncle Jimpson had dreamed all his life, had at last arisen, and instead of being allowed to rise with it, and prove his indisputable right to butlerhood, he had been detailed to drive back and forth to the station over that same humdrum Cane Run Road that he and Old John had helped to wear away for the past quarter of a century!
To be sure, a neat depot wagon and a spirited young sorrel had replaced the ancient buggy and the apostolic nag, but these fell far short of Uncle Jimpson's dreams. A coach and four at that moment would not have compensated him for the fact that a complaisant, red-headed furnaceman, a "po' white trash" arrived but yesterday, was being allowed to pass the tray that by all rights of precedence belonged to him.
Waiting impatiently at the station for the train that was to bring the elusive ices which he had been pursuing all evening, he at last had the satisfaction of seeing the small engine crawl out of the darkness, and come to a wheezing halt.
So engrossed were the conductor and brakeman and Uncle Jimpson in safely depositing the freezers on the platform, that no one noticed a passenger who had alighted. In fact, it was not until Uncle Jimpson heard Mrs. Sequin's name that he paused from his labor and looked up.
The stranger was a young, well-built man, wearing a long, shaggy overcoat, and a cap of a foreign cut that excited the immediate envy of the brake-man. The bag and the suit case which he carried were covered with foreign labels, and he had the air of a person who is suddenly dropped down in a strange place and doesn't quite know what to do with himself.
"You say you want to git up to Mrs. Sequin's to-night?" Uncle Jimpson eyed the bags suspiciously. "'Scuse me, sir, but you ain't sellin' nothin', is you?"
The laugh that greeted this was so spontaneous, that Uncle Jimpson hastened to apologize: "I nebber thought you wuz, only we wasn't lookin' fer no railroad company, an' I 'lowed you didn't look lak you wuz comin' to de party."
"What party?" asked the man, his look of amusement giving place to one of dismay.
"Our-alls party. We's havin' a ball an' a house-warmin'. You must be comin' fum a long ways off not to be hearin' 'bout hit!"
"You mean the Sequins are having a party, tonight?"
"But aren't they expecting me? Didn't they get my telegram?"
"I dunno, sir. Dey nebber said nothin' to me."
The stranger stood with feet apart, watch in hand, and a grim expression on the only part of his face visible between his cap and his upturned collar.
"What time is the next train back to town?"
"Dey ain't none, 'ceptin' de special, what's hired to take de party back to town. Dat goes 'bout two o'clock."
"I'll wait for it," said the stranger, flinging his bag against the waiting-room door and beginning to pace restlessly up and down the snow-covered platform.
But this did not meet with Uncle Jimpson's ideas of hospitality.
"Dey nebber knowed you wuz comin'," he argued. "I jes know dey didn't. But dat won't hinder 'em fum bein' powerful glad to see you. Better git in, Boss, an' lemme dribe you up dere."
"No, there is evidently more room for me in town!"
"Room! Why, Mister, we could take keer of all de Presidents of de Nunited States at one time! 'Sides, hit don't look right to leave you a stompin' round here in de cold fer three or four hours by yourself. You'd git powerful lonesome."
"I'm used to being lonesome. Haven't been anything else for a year."
"But dis heah is different," urged the old darkey, scratching his head; "dis heah is Christmas night. Tain't natchul fer folks not to git together an' laugh an' be happy an' fergit dere quarrels an' dere troubles an' jollify deyselves. You know you ain't gwine be happy stompin' round here in de dark by your loneself; you know dat ain't no way to spend Christmas, Boss!"
The stranger continued to stare into the darkness for a moment, then he laughed, that same sudden, infectious, boyish laugh that had greeted Uncle Jimpson's suggestion that he was an agent.
"You're right!" he exclaimed; "this is no time to nurse a grouch. Perhaps they didn't get the telegram. I'll risk it. Is there a side door you could slip me in?"
"Yas, sir! We got four side doors, 'sides de back one. Ain't nuffin we ain't got. You git right in de wagon, an' I'll hist de bags in. 'Tain't de way I'd like to kerry you up to de mansion, straddlin' a ice-cream freezer wid de snow in yer face, but I'll git you dere!"
Uncle Jimpson, sure of an audience for at least twenty minutes, forgot his wrongs and laid himself out to make the most of his opportunity.
It was very cold and the horse's hoofs beat hard on the frozen ground. Beyond the wavering circle of light from the swaying lantern all was dark and mysterious.
"I certainly is glad dem freezers come," said Uncle Jimpson, tucking in the lap robe; "I shore would hate to go back widout 'em. De Cunnel used to say dat was what niggers was born fer, to git what you sent 'em after."
"Who is the Colonel?" asked the stranger with a quick glance of recognition at the old negro.
"Cunnel Bob Carsey. My old marster. He's dead now, an' Mrs. Sequin she's done borrowed me fer a while."
"When did he die?"
"A year ago las' May."
The man in the foreign cap pulled it further over his eyes and resumed his scrutiny of the road.
"Al dis heah hill used to b'long to us," Uncle Jimpson continued; "long before de Sequinses ever wuz born. I spec' you've heard tell of Thornwood?"
"Yes. Who lives there now?"
"Nobody. When de Cunnel died, my young Miss didn't hab nobody to take keer ob her, nor no money to run de place, no nothin' 'ceptin' jus' me an' Carline. Dey wasn't nothin' left fer her to do but git married."
A long pause followed during which the traveler watched the distorted shadow of the trotting horse as it shambled along the road.
"'Course," the old darkey broke out presently, "Doctor Queerington is a powerful smart gemman, an' he teks keer ob her jes' lak she wuz one ob his own chillun. An' she's gittin' broke into de shafts, but hit's gwine hard wid her. 'Tain't natchul to hitch a young filly up to a old kerriage horse an' spec' her to keep step. She sorter holdin' back all de time, kinder 'fraid to let loose an' carry on same as she use to."
They were going through the covered bridge now and the rattle of the wheels on the loose boards made conversation difficult.
"Wuz you eber homesick, Boss?" asked Uncle Jimpson inconsequently.
"Rather," said the stranger emphatically. "I was born homesick."
"Well, dat's what ails my young Miss an' dat's whut's de matter wid me an' Carline an' Mike. Ain't none ob us used to libin' in other folks' houses an' mixin' up wid other folkses families. 'Course hit's mighty fine to be rich an' put on airs, but hit's lonesome. 'Fore hit got so cold, me an' Carline'd go down home most ebery night an' set round de quarters, listenin' to de frogs an' de crickets, an' I'd say,' Carline, don't you mind de time dat Miss Lady fell head fust into de barrel ob sorghum? An' de time she made de chickens drunk often egg- nog?' Nebber wus nobody in de world lak dat chile, up to ever mischievousness dat ever wuz concocted, but jus' so sweet an' coaxin' dat de Cunnel nebber knowed how to punish her."
The stranger took out a meerschaum pipe, started to light a match, evidently forgot his intention, and looked absently ahead into the darkness.
"Dis is Thornwood!" said Uncle Jimpson eagerly, pointing with his whip up a long avenue of trees; "you can't see de house 'cause dey ain't no lights in de winders. De Cunnel's paw set dem trees out de same year he bought Carline. Lord, I certainly wuz gone on dat yaller gal! But I didn't know nothin' 'bout courtin'. Carline she wuz better qualified though, an' she made me ast Old Miss ef I couldn't hab her fer my wife. We didn't need no Bible nor preacher, nor sech foolishness in dem days. But when Old Miss wuz willin' we jus' dress up an' walk ober de place an' tell all de niggers we wuz married. Umph, umph! But I wuz proud dat day! I had on a bran' new pair ob pants dat cost two-hundred an' sixty-fo' dollars in Confederate money! When Mr. Abe Lincum set us niggers free, dey made us git married all ober agin wid a preacher an' a Bible, but I never seed no diffunce."
"Does Mrs.—Mrs. Queerington ever come back to Thornwood?" asked the stranger, stumbling over the name as if it were very hard for him to say.
"Yas, sir, she comes jes' lak me an' Carline, an' wanders roun' de house an' de garden, an' sets in de ole barrel hammock, studyin' to herself."
"And Mike,—what became of him?"
Uncle Jimpson looked at him in surprise, "How'd you know about Mike, Mister?"
"Didn't you speak of him a while ago; wasn't he the dog?"
"Yas, sir. He's our dog. He's stayin' wif Miss Ferney Foster what libes down beyond de blacksmith's on de other side de pike. He don't lak it no better'n we do; he's homesick, too."
They had reached a pretentious white gateway, and Uncle Jimpson, recalled to a sense of his duties, drew himself up from his slouching posture, crooked his elbow and rounded the curve as if he had been driving a tally-ho. Through the bare trees above them blazed the magnificent proportions of Angora Heights, with its pretentious assembly of stables, garage and servants' quarters in the rear.
"Ye gods!" exclaimed the stranger under his breath; "is this all of it?"
"Naw, sir!" Uncle Jimpson denied emphatically; "if hit wuz daytime you could see de Ramparts an' de Estanade. Over dere is de Lygoon. 'Tain't nothin' shore 'nuff but our ole pond where we uster ketch bullfrogs, but Mrs. Sequin she tole me to call hit de Lygoon. You see dem carvins ober de door? Dat figger goin' up dat Egyptions stairway is John Dark. Didn't you nebber heah 'bout John Dark? He wuz a woman what fit a battle onct."
"Cut around to the side there, out of the way of the motors," directed the stranger, who seemed much more concerned in making a quiet entrance into the mansion than in studying its architectural features. "Here's something to put in the toe of your Christmas stocking, and another for Caroline. Hurry up!"
He vaulted lightly over the wheel and turned to take his bag. As he did so the light from the conservatory window above fell full upon his upturned face.
"Fore de Lawd!" cried Uncle Jimpson, a broad grin splitting his face almost in two. "I might 'a' knowed dat de only gemman in de world what tipped lak dat wuz Mr. Don Morley!"
It is really a very difficult thing to snub Christmas. You may relegate it to the class of nuisances, and turn your back on Santa Claus, and vote the whole institution a gigantic bore, but before the day is over it usually gets the better of you, as it did of Donald Morley, arriving unannounced and unwelcomed at the side door of the Sequin mansion.
It had gotten the better of him the year before when he had risen in the gray dawn of an Indian day and stoically made his way to the banks of the Ganges. It had proclaimed itself above the Vedic hymns of the twice-born Brahmins, standing knee-deep in the sacred river; it had dogged his footsteps among the ash-smeared fakirs, and jewel-hung cows; it had even haunted the burning-ghat where he had stood and watched human bodies burning on their pyres.
Eighteen months of wandering had made him sick of the casual; of the steamer acquaintances formed at one port and dropped at the next; of the unfamiliar sights and incomprehensible languages and the horde of alien yellow faces. He was weary unto death of the freedom of the high seas, and longed fervently for a strong anchor, and a quiet harbor.
When Cropsie Decker's explosive epistle had arrived telling him of his indictment, of Margery's broken engagement, of Lee Dillingham's treachery, his first thought was not of his wrongs, but of the fact that they would necessitate his going home.
He did not stop to realize that going home meant but one thing to him. He even tried to persuade himself that seeing Miss Lady in the role of a happy, complaisant wife would cure him of his insatiable longing for her. From the time he heard of her marriage he had striven desperately to put her out of his mind, using every means but one to accomplish his purpose. Through all his resentment and bitterness of heart, he had never returned to his old life. Those promises made to her in the full ardor of his boyish passion, he had kept with the hopeless loyalty that one keeps the garments of the dead.
Now that he had been indicted for a crime of which he was wholly innocent, his first desire was to know if she still believed in him. To be sure, there were strong reasons why she should not: his own confession of his shortcomings; the unfortunate complication in the Dillingham affair; his subsequent disappearance. It was but natural that she should have been brought to see the folly of pinning her faith to such an unstable proposition as himself. His first agonized protest against her marriage had given place to a stoical acceptance of the fact. He was paying the price many a man has paid for the follies of his youth, and he was ready to pay without a protest, if only she could be made to understand the truth.
All that was best in him demanded justice from her, the justice he had pleaded for in that long letter sent from San Francisco. Going home for him meant not only a trial by jury and a verdict of guilty or innocent. It meant far more. He would know from her own lips whether she had ever received his letter, and whether or not she believed in him. On her decision rested his faith in human nature and in God.
The sudden decision to return to America had been reached one night in Port Said, where he had just joined an exploring expedition bound for the Valley of the Kings. He cancelled his engagement, took passage on a little Russian steamer that was bound for Alexandria, and too impatient to wait for a liner from that port shipped on a freight boat for Naples. The passage across the Atlantic had been a tempestuous one, and he had landed in New York two days overdue, with no time to notify the family of his arrival.
And now after eighteen months of exile in foreign lands he was actually home again! That is if this resplendent, unfamiliar abode, full of music and lights and strange servants, could be called home. However, it was the nearest approach to one he could claim, and the fact that the fatted calf had not been killed for him, and that the law waited for him around the corner, did not prevent his pulse quickening and his lips smiling as he took the side steps two at a time, and entered the rear hall.
An officious, red-headed man stood in the pantry door with a napkin over his arm, issuing peremptory orders and regulating the outcoming and ingoing waiters. "Are you the butler?" asked Donald.
"Not yet," said the man, dropping one eyelid and assuming a confidential air; "I can see she's after me, though. She got on to my style the minute she seen me handle a tray of glasses. 'Flathers,' she sez, 'you keep things movin' back there in the pantry, and do keep a eye on John.' John's the butler. He's a drinkin' man, God be praised, and I'm layin' fer his job. Are you a chauffeur?"
"No," said Donald good humoredly. "I'm a prodigal brother. Where have I seen you before?"
"Can't say. If a person sees me once they never fergit me. It's me golden glow. Come, boys! Hurry up! Hurry up with them cakes there. Git them extry freezers unpacked. Git a move on yer."
"Take this card in to Mrs. Sequin," said Donald, "and ask her if she can spare a moment to see a caller in the rear entry."
Phineas glanced suspiciously from the card to the stranger, then he decided that he would not question the matter.
A moment later, Mrs. Sequin with her glittering draperies gathered about her, and an expression of great perturbation on her features, made her high-heeled way through the pantry.
"Donald! My dear boy!" she exclaimed effusively, presenting her cheek with the caution of one who hopes the kiss will be light. "What on earth are you doing here? We had no idea you were in America. How thin you are! I've been in a perfect agony about you. Not those champagne glasses, John; the larger ones. That tiresome butler! He has been tipsy all day. Now, what about yourself, Donald? It is dreadfully unwise for you to be here; you know of course of—of the indictment?"
"That's why I'm here. But how is everybody? How are Brother Basil and little old Margery? Where's my saddle mare?"
"I'll tell you everything to-morrow, Don. You must want to go to your room now. Flathers take this gentleman's bags up to the East guest- room,—no, that's occupied. You won't mind going up another flight, just for to-night, dear?"
"Oh, tuck me in anywhere, just so there's a bath handy."
"All the bedrooms have baths," said Mrs. Sequin absently, with her eye on the befuddled butler who was trying to uncork a bottle with a screwdriver, "Let Flathers—I mean Benson—do that, John, and you take these bags. So sorry I can't go up with you myself, Don, but the cotillion is just beginning, and I have to see to the favors."
"That's right, don't bother about me, I'll get into some decent togs and be down again in a little while."
Mrs. Sequin paused with her hand on the banister, then she leaned forward solicitously:
"I wouldn't take the trouble to dress and come down again, Don. It's late and you must be dead tired. You go to bed. I'll understand."
Donald, standing a few steps above her, shot a questioning glance at her, then he, too, understood.
"Oh, all right," he said, biting his lip; "I believe I won't come down. You might send Marge up, after the people leave, just to say 'Hello.'"
"Of course, we'll both be up. Nothing could hold her if she knew you were here. But it is better that nobody should know. I was careful not to mention your name before the servants. You can have a nice little visit with us, and get away again without any one being the wiser. It is so lovely you got here in time for Christmas! Good night." She came up two steps and presented her other cheek for a kiss.
The delinquent John, meanwhile, was performing acrobatic feats with the bags, getting them so mixed up with his own legs and the stair steps that Donald snatched them from him, and, eliciting a vague direction concerning the room he was to occupy, went up to find it alone.
He felt something of the hot rebellion and resentment that he had experienced on another Christmas night in the long ago, when the cross-eyed French nurse had put him to bed at five o'clock and left him alone in the big hotel in Paris. Then he had cried himself to sleep because there wasn't any Santa Claus and because he didn't have a sweetheart. But the consolations of six are denied to twenty-five.
On the second floor he followed directions and turned to the right. The dressing-rooms were deserted, the maids having taken their seats on the steps to peep at the dancers below. He, too, paused, and looked down at the gaily whirling throng. There was his old familiar world, the fellows he had been through college with, the girls he had flirted with, the very music he had danced to, times without numbers. And he was as much out of it all as if he had died of the fever in that gray old hospital in Singapore? Ah, if he only had!
He turned abruptly and started up the second flight of stairs, and as he did so something rose precipitately from the steps, and fluttered ahead of him.
He looked up and as he did so chaos broke loose within him. There at the top, in the subdued light from the upper hall, startled, uncertain, off her guard stood Miss Lady, not the pretty, harum-scarum girl of his dreams, but a beautiful, wistful woman with trembling lips and startled eyes, who held out her hands to him in involuntary welcome.
He lost his head completely. All the blood in his body rushed to his throat. Something sang through every fiber of him.
"Miss Lady!" he cried, catching the hands she extended in both of his, then as she drew back from his too ardent look, he remembered. "I beg your pardon of course it's Mrs. Queerington, now."
"Not to you, Don. When did you come? Are you well again? Didn't any one know you were coming? Have the others seen you?"
She poured forth her questions eagerly, as if she feared another pause. She was making a desperate effort to appear easy, but her eagerness betrayed her. She repeated that she had no idea he was in America, and took refuge in a general assurance that everybody would be so glad to have him home again.
Donald, lean and tanned, stood silent, watching her searchingly. His deep-set eyes were clearer and steadier than of old, but they were no longer the eyes of a boy. He was like a mariner whose ship has been wrecked. He had nothing worse to dread and nothing to hope for. He simply desired to see the rock on which his life craft had smashed.
Miss Lady continued to ask questions, but she evidently did not always heed the answers as she asked some of them twice over. It was not until Donald's trouble was touched upon that her mood steadied and she lost her self-consciousness.
"Of course you must stand the trial," she said, and her voice rang with the old assurance; "you must fight the whole matter out once for all, and prove your innocence."
"Oh, the Court will prove that all right, but what does it matter? If people were willing to damn me without hearing, to believe that I had shot a man's eye out, then run away to escape the punishment—Bah! it's sickening."
"But everybody doesn't believe it. The Doctor doesn't, nor Margery, nor Cropsie Decker, nor I. Hundreds of your friends are ready to stand by you. Don't listen to what anybody else says, but stay and fight it out."
He looked up suddenly. "Did you ever get that letter I wrote you before I sailed from 'Frisco?"
He hadn't meant to blurt it out like that, the question that had tortured him so long, but her sympathy and friendliness had unnerved him.
Leaning forward with all his soul in his eyes, he watched the color mount steadily from her throat to her cheeks, then to her brow. He heard her draw a sharp, quivering breath as one who walks on a precipice, then she faced him steadily.
"Yes, Donald," she said, meeting his gaze unflinchingly, "I got it."
He dropped his head on his hand where it rested on the banister, and they stood for a moment in silence save for the strains of music that came up from below. Then he straightened his shoulders.
"That's all. I had to make sure, you know. And you didn't believe in me?"
Across her face quivered the desire for speech, and the necessity for silence.
"I do believe in you, Don," she said earnestly. "I believe in you with all my heart and soul. And we are going to be your friends; you'll let us, the Doctor and me?"
He took the hand she offered, but he said nothing, and after she was gone he went into his room, and flinging himself across the bed, buried his face in the pillows.
The new year began inauspiciously at the Queerington's. In the first place Bertie woke up with the chickenpox and was banished to the nursery. Then the Doctor followed his annual custom of going over his business affairs, with the usual result that he found his accounts greatly overdrawn. This fact was solemnly communicated to each member of the family in turn together with admonitions in regard to the future. By lunch time Hattie had been sent to her room for impertinently suggesting that her father spent more on his books than she did on her clothes, and Connie was sulking over a reduced allowance.
"Of course," the Doctor explained to Miss Lady as he sank exhausted into his invalid chair which had been pressed into service again during the past few weeks, "I have no doubt but that Basil Sequin can arrange things for me. He always has in the past, but he seems very pressed of late, very harassed. I hardly like to approach him so soon again for a loan."
"Couldn't we rent a smaller house, and have less company?" suggested Miss Lady.
The Doctor shook his head. "It would be very difficult for me to adjust myself to new surroundings. The conditions here for my work are fairly satisfactory. The Ivy's piano, to be sure, is a constant annoyance, but by using cotton in my ears I obviate that nuisance. It is particularly unfortunate that this complication about money should come just at the most critical point of my work. Unless Basil Sequin can make some arrangement, I shall be seriously embarrassed."
"I'll tell you what we can do," cried Miss Lady brightly, just as if she had not been trying to get herself up to the point of making the offer for a week. "We can sell off another bit of Thornwood. Since the Sequins built out there ever so many people have asked about ground."
"No," said the Doctor, the lines of care deepening in his fine, grave face. "There is little left now but the house and farm. Your sentiment regarding the place is such that I cannot permit the sacrifice. The matter will doubtless adjust itself. I shall take some private pupils at the university and perhaps arrange an extra course of lectures. The exigencies of the past two years have been exceptional."
"But you are already working yourself to death," protested Miss Lady. "Doctor Wyeth said last week that you could not stand the strain. The rest of us ought to do something; we must do something!"
"You are doing something, my dear. You are relieving me of innumerable burdens in regard to the house and the children. You are proving of great assistance to me in my work, not only by your reading aloud, but by the unfailing sympathy and understanding you give me. Whatever success shall crown my life work will be in a measure due to you."
She was sitting on a hassock at his feet, and she looked up at him with strange, dumb eyes. His frail body and towering ambition, his loveless life that knew not what it missed, roused in her a pity almost maternal. A fierce resentment rose within her against herself, for not loving him as she knew a husband should be loved. If he had only won her with his heart instead of his head!
The door bell rang and Miss Lady glanced up apprehensively.
"It was the pickle woman," announced Myrtella, coming in a moment later from the hall. "I sent her about her business."
"Not Miss Ferney!" cried Miss Lady, springing up and rushing out to call her.
Miss Ferney Foster with much difficulty was persuaded to return and sit on the edge of a hall chair. On New Year's in the past she had always made a formal call at Thornwood and presented the Colonel with a sample of her best wares. The Colonel in turn had invariably sent down cellar for one of the cobwebbiest bottles on the swinging shelf and bestowed it upon her with great gallantry. The indignity of having been refused admittance at the house of the Colonel's daughter was almost more than she could bear.
"Now, tell me about everybody out home," demanded Miss Lady eagerly. "Begin at the bottom of the hill and go right straight up."
"I don't know much news," Miss Ferney said, plucking at the fingers of her cotton gloves. "I been sewing up to the Sequins' all week."
"Mercy! How grand we are getting!"
"Just hemming table clothes and napkins. I can't say I think much of their new place. It's kind of skimpy."
"Why, Miss Ferney! It is the biggest house I was even in!"
"I ain't talking 'bout the size. I'm talking 'bout the fixings. There ain't a single carpet that fits the floor by two feet, and the wallpaper's patched in every room but one. As for the dining-room! Well, I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes! They haven't got a picture, or a tidy, or a curtain, or a lamberkin, of any kind. 'Spose I oughtn't to tell it on 'em, but the day I was there they didn't even have a tablecloth!"
Miss Lady laughed in spite of herself, and Bertie heard her and got out of bed to call over the banisters that if they were telling jokes to please come up there.
"You know that young man that used to be out to the Wickers'?" asked Miss Ferney on the way up. "Well, he's Mrs. Sequin's brother. He's giving 'em considerable trouble."
"How do you mean?"
"They want him to go 'way somewheres, and he won't do it. The servant girl told me that him and his sister had been having it up and down, and that Miss Margery took his side."
"Is he going to stay?" Miss Lady paused and her fingers gripped the banister.
"I dunno. I guess if he gits mad enough he'll run off to China like he did before. Ain't that somebody calling you?"
It was Connie who had run up to say that a young man was at the front door who looked like a tombstone with a blond pompadour.
"Noah Wicker!" exclaimed Miss Lady. "I forgot that I told him I would try to get him into Mr. Gooch's law office the first of the year. Wasn't it like him to arrive the first day? You go down, Connie, that's a darling, and entertain him 'til I come. I'll be there directly."
But "directly" proved an elastic term, for after Miss Ferney had left, and four different persons had been assured over the telephone that all invitations were being declined on account of the Doctor's indisposition, Miss Lady found Hattie still sulking in her room, and spent a half hour in restoring peace to that troubled bosom.
Meanwhile Myrtella came up to announce with elation that a waterpipe had burst in the cellar. Few things roused such joy in Myrtella as the bursting of a waterpipe. It was an act of insubordination on the part of the pipe, with which she deeply sympathized.
"And it's Mr. Gooch's night for supper, and if that man in the parlor stays, too, the ice cream won't go 'round," she declared, with evident satisfaction in the cumulative tragedy.
By the time the knots were untied, Miss Lady had forgotten all about Noah Wicker, and it was only when Connie came in declaring indignantly that she wouldn't talk to the stupid fellow another minute, that she remembered.
"You poor dear child!" she cried, giving her a repentant squeeze. "I am sorry. Hattie, would you mind going down and entertaining him a second, 'til I change my dress?"
"I would," said Hattie firmly.
Of course Noah stayed to dinner, and Miss Lady regarded it as an act of Providence that he and Mr. Gooch should have thus immediately been thrown together.
But when Mr. Gooch arrived he was concerned with much more important affairs. He brought the astounding news that Donald Morley had returned home and, against the advice of his family and his lawyers, decided to stand his trial for the shooting of Dick Sheeley!
"It is perfectly preposterous!" Mr. Gooch exploded, "to voluntarily put himself in the clutches of the law in a complicated case like this! He could have lived elsewhere for a few years. Even if he is innocent, the evidence is all against him. I have argued with him for two days. His sister tells me that she has worked on him for a week. He will listen to nobody."
"Quite right," said the Doctor emphatically. "The establishment of his good name should be his primary consideration. 'The purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation.' I am more gratified than I can say that Donald is taking this course. He is justifying my persistent belief in his integrity. Once cleared by a jury the ghost of that unfortunate affair will, I trust, be laid forever."
"It is not so certain that he will be cleared," Mr. Gooch said, taking his accustomed seat at the table, with a solicitous eye on the door where Myrtella would appear with the soup. "I shall do my best for him, but I have my doubts."
"You say he has been here a week?" the Doctor asked. "Strange he has not been in to see us. He was always fond of the children, and professed a certain regard, I believe, for me. I want him to meet Mrs. Queerington."
There was a pause, during which Noah Wicker turned a surprised glance upon the hostess.
"I know Mr. Morley," she said steadily, while the color mounted to her cheeks. "I knew him when he was with Noah at the farm."
"Indeed," said the Doctor. "I must have forgotten your mentioning it. I am afraid, Mr. Wicker, we've been neglecting you to-night in our concern over Donald's problems. But it is a subject in which you are doubtless equally interested?"
Noah started to reply, but realizing that the company was looking at him, forgot what he was going to say and bowed instead.
At this juncture the thing of all others that Miss Lady dreaded, occurred. Donald Morley was announced by Myrtella in tones whose accents implied that nothing could now prevent the ice cream from giving out.
"Well, well!" cried the Doctor, rising and greeting him with outstretched hand, "a hearty welcome home. You know everybody here, I believe? Even Mrs. Queerington tells me she has met you. And this is Hattie. I am quite sure you were not prepared to see her so tall."
Donald, retaining Hattie's hand, made the round of greetings.
"Where are Connie and Bert?"
"Connie is dressing for a party, and poor old Bert is struggling with the chickenpox," Miss Lady managed to say as she busied herself with the coffee cups.
"And now tell us about yourself," said the Doctor, drawing a chair for Donald beside his own. "You will pardon my cushions, but I am still something of an invalid, and the little lady at the end of the table insists upon spoiling me. You knew, of course, of my accident, some two years ago?"
"Not until I got home," Donald said without looking up. "I hope you've gotten well again?"
"Oh, no, I shall never be well. The physicians assured me of that from the first, but they also said that with care and proper conservation of my energies I would probably live to a ripe old age. I do not suppose you have ever had to resist the temptation to overwork, Donald?"
Donald smiled and puckered his brow.
"He has plenty of work cut out for him now!" growled Mr. Gooch, whose mind having been temporarily diverted by the salad now rushed back to the trial.
"Work for an admirable cause," said the Doctor. "Mr. Gooch has just been telling us of your decision, Donald, and I cannot express my gratification at your course of action."
"Thank you, Doctor! That's the first encouragement I've had. My family seem to think I am a lunatic, and even my lawyer, here, is taking the case under protest."
"The value of a good name," began the Doctor, then remembering that he had delivered himself at length on that subject earlier in the evening, he broke off by inquiring if Donald had been doing any writing during his absence.
"Oh! yes, I am always scribbling. It doesn't amount to anything though."
"Yes, it does, too!" declared Hattie, to whom Cousin Don had always been a hero. "Mr. Decker told Gerald Ivy that you did all the best things in the articles he sent home for the syndicate."
"I suspected it!" said the Doctor. "I thought I recognized your humorous view-point in that first article on China. I remarked to my wife at the time that you had visualized the scene, for the reader, exactly as you had seen it."
"But I didn't!" said Donald. "I wrote that story a month before we reached China. Decker hit on the idea of getting all the articles written while we were crossing the Pacific, so we wouldn't have to bother about them after we landed. We used to get up on the boat-deck and turn them off like hot cakes. That's all foolishness about my doing the best parts. Why, Decker is a wonder! He 's reducing the thing to a science; he doesn't even need a pen or a pencil; just plenty of guide books, a paper of pins, and a pair of scissors. Lapboard literature, he calls it. He spent most of his time trimming my effusions down to measurements."
"That is because you indulged your imagination. It is a drug in the journalistic market, but it is invaluable elsewhere. Why not try something for the magazines? Choose a congenial theme and give your fancy full rein. It will be interesting to see what comes of it."
Connie's entrance here interrupted further conversation. She had neglected no detail of her toilet, and the result was a pink and white confection ready for conquest.
"We thought you were never coming to see us, Cousin Don," she said, half pouting, and giving a side glance at Noah Wicker. "You 've been home a whole week!"
"Heavens, Connie! I didn't expect to find you so grown up. How long have you been out?"
"I 've never been in," she said, releasing her hand and smiling consciously. "Aren't you coming to the Bartrums' party to-night?"
"No, I'm not in a mood for parties these days."
"But I 've never had a chance to dance with you since you taught me to waltz."
"Horrible deprivation! Can you still do the cake walk I taught you?"
"Yes, and so can Miss Lady! Isn't it funny? She says it 's the one the darkeys dance at the picnics up at Thornwood! Come on, Miss Lady; let 's show them!"
"Constance, Constance!" remonstrated the Doctor gently, as the girl seized Miss Lady's hands and tried to draw her to her feet. "You see, Donald, the children forget that Mrs. Queerington is anything but a play-fellow, and sometimes—" he rose and laid a hand on her shoulder, "sometimes she forgets, too."
Donald pushed back his chair abruptly.
"I think I'll come to the party, Connie, after all. I'll run up to Decker's room at the hotel and change my togs. You will save me a waltz or two?"
"All of them, if you like! It's going to be the jolliest dance of the season, everybody says so. Change your mind, Miss Lady, and come! I don't see how you can hesitate when you remember the time you had at the Sequins'! Gerald is coming for me; we can all go down together."
Miss Lady needed only the spark of Connie's enthusiasm to start all the forbidden fires in her. Her eyes flew to the Doctor's face.
He smiled as he caught her eager look. "Go with them, my dear, if you like. It is quite a natural instinct, I believe, to celebrate the first night of the New Year."
"But you, will you take me? Just this once, Doctor?"
"No, no. My party days are over. Donald here will take my place, will you not, Donald?"
But Miss Lady gave him no chance to answer. That mad insistent clamor within her for joy, for life, for love, could not be trusted for a moment. She was afraid of herself!
"I'll stay home," she said, with a brave attempt at gaiety, conscious of Donald's critical eyes upon her. "We will have a pinochle tournament, and Noah and I will beat the home team on its own ground. Won't we, Noah?"
But Noah did not hear her; he was absorbed in watching Connie who stood on tiptoe, pinning a flower in Don Morley's buttonhole.
For the next month little else was talked about but Donald Morley's trial. The truth of the matter sustained a compound fracture every time the subject was discussed. In some quarters it was confidently asserted that the fugitive from justice had been captured the moment he landed in America, and was allowed his liberty only under a heavy bond. Others contended that a guilty conscience had driven him to confession.
Meanwhile his friends were either exasperated at his folly in reviving the old scandal, or quixotically enthusiastic over his demand for justice. Mrs. Sequin bitterly opposed his action until she found that the Bartrums, Dr. Queerington, and other influential friends upheld him, then she decided to suspend her judgment until the trial was over. Of course if he was going to be a hero, she wanted to be his loving sister, but if he was going to be convicted, she would have nothing more to do with him. He had gone directly against her advice in coming home, and she observed with ominous certainty that "he would see."
Donald threw himself into the work before him with grim determination. He spent hours daily in Mr. Gooch's stuffy office going over transcript of testimony in the Dillingham trial; he made a number of visits to Billy-goat Hill, recalling every detail of the shooting. On the first visit he had sought out Sheeley, confident of being able to jog his memory, concerning his part in the affray, but to his dismay he found that Sheeley had already been summoned to the office of the prosecuting attorney. In every direction he turned he encountered the octopus of the law.
Mr. Gooch gave him little encouragement. He wheezed, and whined, and contested every suggestion. His client appeared to him a foolhardy boy who had gotten well out of an ugly scrape, and did not have sense enough to stay out. So strongly did he feel this that he felt called upon to express it at great length, on every possible occasion.
Donald would sit before him with arms folded, and jaws set, waiting impatiently for these harangues to cease. He had employed him because he was the family lawyer, and because he was a friend of Doctor Queerington's. At the end of the first week he realized that he had made a mistake, and confided the fact to Noah Wicker.
Noah, having successfully worked through the law course at the university, was now, by the persistent efforts of Miss Lady, occupying a dark corner of Mr. Gooch's outer office. Here, with feet hooked under a rung of a stool, and fingers grasping his pompadour, he doggedly wrestled with the cases he heard in court, laboriously puzzling out obscure points by the aid of the Statute and the Code.
Donald soon fell into the habit of discussing his approaching trial with him, at such times as Mr. Gooch was absent. He found Noah's calm, impersonal point of view a relief after the skeptical, disapproving attitude of the older attorney.
During these days Donald spent as little time as possible at Angora Heights. The family skeletons that had always lurked in the Sequin closets, seemed to revel in their commodious new quarters. It is a melancholy fact that the more closets one acquires, the more skeletons there are to occupy them!
Mrs. Sequin's existence, if restless in town, was trebly so in the country. Between catching trains and receiving and speeding guests, engaging and dismissing servants, and agonizing over the non- essentials, she dwelt in the vortex of a whirlwind that disturbed everything in its wake.
Between her and Margery the gulf was widening. Having declared her independence, the girl went further, and entered a training class in the kindergarten, an act which caused a rupture that threatened to be serious, until the head of the family for once asserted his authority, and unexpectedly sided with his daughter.
Basil Sequin during these days had little time to bestow upon family matters. He rose at six o'clock, drank three cups of black coffee, devoured the newspapers, and was on the way to the office before his gardener was out of bed. Before and after banking hours he had committee meetings, and special appointments, snatching a few minutes for luncheon at the nearest restaurant.
Donald had had but one chance to talk with him since his return, and that was one evening when he was summoned to his den. He found him pacing restlessly up and down the room, his hands thrust deep in his pockets.
"You've decided to stand the trial, I hear?" Mr. Sequin asked abruptly.
"Yes, I had to get the matter cleared up. It is all so idiotic, my being indicted! I don't anticipate any trouble."
"You can't tell," said Mr. Sequin, "but I didn't send for you to discuss the trial. It's business I want to talk about. Do you know how much stock you own in the People's Bank?"
"No, I can't say that I do exactly."
"Well, it's time you were finding out. How would you like to take charge of your own affairs from now on?"
Donald looked at him in undisguised surprise. Heretofore the only time that money matters had been discussed between them was when he had been guilty of some extra extravagance. This sudden change of tactics on the part of his brother-in-law was disconcerting.
"Why, I shouldn't like it at all, unless it would relieve you," he said.
"It isn't that. One bother more or less doesn't matter. The point is, I want you to act for yourself. The result of this trial is by no means certain; you may need considerable ready money before you get through with it. Why don't you sell your bank stock, and make some better paying investments on your own hook?"
"Why, I thought the bank stock—" began Donald, but Mr. Sequin wheeled upon him impatiently.
"Do you want my advice or not?"
"Of course I want it."
"Very well. Listen to me. Almost every dollar you have is tied up in the People's Bank. Go down to-morrow morning to a broker, Gilson's the best man, tell him that you must have a big sum of money at once. In order to get it you are willing to sacrifice every share of your People's stock. Tell him not to put it on the market, but to sell it in small blocks to different people, and not to stick at the price. Make him understand that it has to do with your trial, and caution him particularly not to let me know of the transaction."
"But I don't understand," said Donald, watching with troubled eyes the stooped figure that continued to pace up and down the room like an animal in a cage.
"I didn't offer to explain. I offered to advise," Mr. Sequin snarled. "There are complications that couldn't be made clear to you in a month! I'll ask you not to refer to this matter again to me or to any one else. I have a lot of papers to look over now, so I'll say good night."
Donald rose from where he had been sitting at the table.
"Of course you know what is best," he said irresolutely. "And I know I've got no business shifting my responsibilities on you. By the way, can't I help you with some of this stuff? You look about done for to- night."
"Done for?" Mr. Sequin smiled ironically, and ran his fingers through his scant gray hair. "Why, Don, I'd change places with any old corpse to-night, just for a chance to lie down in a quiet corner and stop thinking! No, there's nothing you can do. There's nothing anybody can do. Good night; close the door as you go out, and leave word downstairs if I am called over the 'phone to say I am not here."
All things considered it is small wonder that Donald passed as little time as possible at Angora Heights. The time he was not occupied with his trial hung heavy on his hands. Distrustful of his friends, sensitive to criticism, and dreading the humiliating ordeal to come, he spent one of the most wretched months of his life. He tried to write, but fancy fled before the glare of the actual. The only place where he found temporary peace was under the roof of the grim-looking house in College Street.
From the first Doctor Queerington had championed his cause, and urged upon him his hospitality. To be sure the Doctor's hospitality usually began and ended with his welcome, after which he would take himself off to the study, and leave his guest to the care of the family.
At such times Miss Lady invariably went with him. In fact, Donald had never seen her alone since the night of his arrival, and the very fact that she seldom remained down-stairs in the evenings, made his conscience lighter about lingering in her vicinity.
Mrs. Ivy was the first to comment on his frequent visits. She confided to Mrs. Sequin that she was afraid he was getting interested in Connie Queerington, and that somebody ought to tell him that Connie had been in love with dear Gerald for years and years. An impartial observer might have expressed a less confident opinion concerning the object of Miss Connie's affections.
Noah Wicker, for instance, while not exactly an impartial observer, had arrived at quite a different conclusion.
"You watch the way she looks at Don," he said darkly to Miss Lady on one occasion.
Miss Lady laughed, "Oh! Connie's like the Last Duchess, she likes whate'er she looks on, and her looks go everywhere."
"Yes, but this is different. Has she ever said anything to you about him?"
"Mercy, yes, Connie talks to be about all the boys."
"Does she talk about me?" Noah's eyes were as wistful as a dog's.
For a second Miss Lady hesitated, then she compromised with truth and said, "yes." She did not add that Connie was particularly voluble on the subject of his hair, and the creak of his boots and his apparent genius for ubiquity.
"Do you know what I'd do if I were you, Noah?" she said. "I'd have me a new suit of clothes made."
"Why, these are new!"
"Yes, I know, but they don't fit. And get some shoes that don't creak, and—and you won't mind my telling you, Noah? Pompadours went out of style six years ago."
Noah gloomily shook his head. "It's not my clothes. It's not clothes that make Don Morley. By the way, aren't you two friends, any more?"
Miss Lady faced the question unflinchingly. "Yes, we are friends. Is he going to win out?"
"With Miss Connie?"
"No, you foolish boy. In his trial."
"I don't know."
"What will happen if he loses?"
"The case will be appealed."
"And if he loses in the Court of Appeals?"
"It's up to Gooch to see that he doesn't lose. I only wish I was as certain of a few other things as I am of Donald Morley's innocence!"
One afternoon, a few days before the trial, Donald after oscillating between the hotel and his club and finding each equally intolerable, jumped on the car and went out to the Queeringtons. It was a cold, raw day, with a fine mist filling the air, and even the dull formality of the drab parlor seemed a relief from the gloom without.
Miss Lady started up from the piano as he entered, but Connie pulled her back:
"You shan't run off and leave us, shall she, Cousin Don? She was just going to play for Mr. Wicker to sing. Did you know he could sing?"
"Oh, yes. Wick's the Original Warbler. Do you remember our serenades on the Cane Run Road, Wick?"
"Yes," said Noah glumly.
"I forgot that you and Mr. Wicker used to know each other," Connie said curiously. "Why the Cane Run Road runs by Thornwood, doesn't it?"
"Yes," said Don calmly, seizing the conversation and shoving it out of shoal water. "Go ahead, Wick, and sing something; we'll join in the chorus."
But when the time for the chorus came Donald had forgotten his promise. He was leaning back in a corner of the sofa, his hand shading his eyes, watching Miss Lady, and wondering what trick of fate had driven her to marry John Jay Queerington. There was no man in the world whose moral worth he admired more, but Miss Lady seemed as out of place in his life as a darting, quivering humming-bird in a museum of natural history. He noticed the faint shadows about her eyes, and the wistful droop of her lips. If he could only set her free! A mad desire seized him to see her once more joyously on the wing with all her old buoyancy and daring. And yet she had walked open eyed into her cage, and he had yet to see the tiniest flutter of her wings against the bars.
On that first night of his home-coming surely he had read a welcome in her eyes! But never since by word or gesture had he reason to think that she remembered. She was gracious and elusive, and she talked to him as she talked to Decker and Gerald Ivy, only she looked at them when she talked, and she never even looked at him.
Yet she had cared! He had only to recall the flashing revelation of her eyes that night in the garden to know for one transcendent moment, at least, she was his. It was the look that had sustained his faith in her through all those weary months of silence, making him cling to the belief, until he heard the truth from her own lips, that she had failed to get his letter. It was the remembrance of that look and what it had promised that rushed upon him now as he watched her.
All the reckless impulse of his boyhood, the long years of unrestraint, surged over him, urging him on to wake in her some answer to his fierce, insistent demand. She should remember the way he had loved her, she should know the way he loved her now. If there was any heart left in her she must respond in some way to his imperative need.
But her eyes kept steadily on the key-board, and her fingers unfalteringly followed the notes. Could he have known how the tears burned under her lashes, and how cold her fingers were on the keys; could he have guessed how she sat there under his steady gaze, with tense muscles and quivering nerves, calculating the minutes that must elapse before Noah's interminable verses would end, and she could escape, he might have had compassion on her.
"Sing, Cousin Don!" demanded Connie; "you are leaving it all to Mr. Wicker and me, while you sit there looking exactly as if you had lost your last friend."
"No, only my illusions, Connie."
"Where did you lose them?"
"In Singapore. All but one. I hung on to it clear around the world, only to lose it on Christmas night when I got home. Don't you feel sorry for me?"
"Not a bit," said Connie saucily. "I couldn't feel sorry for anybody as good looking as you are,—could you, Mr. Wicker? Where did Miss Lady go?"
"She said she was going to lie down, that her head ached," said Noah.
"I know what's the matter," said Connie; "she tries to keep us from seeing it, but she's all broken up over selling Thornwood."
"Thornwood!" cried Donald; "she hasn't sold it?"
"No, but it's been put up for sale. She'd die at the stake for Father. He doesn't even know about it."
"But surely there is some other way." Connie shrugged her shoulders. "I am sure I don't know. Hattie's given up music and French, and we've put Bertie in the public school, and I haven't had but one party dress this winter. But a girl doesn't have to depend on clothes to have a good time, does she, Mr. Wicker?"
That night Donald sat up late, turning things over in his mind. Once the trial was over he must go away, where he could not see Miss Lady or hear of her. He must plunge into some business that would absorb his time and attention. But before he went he must make an investment and make it at once. In order to do so, he would follow Basil Sequin's advice, and offer his bank stock for sale in the morning.
There was anxiety in the drab house in College Street. The second day of Donald Morley's trial had come and no decision had been reached. Every ring of the telephone, every opening of the front door brought a hurrying of feet through the hall, and an eager demand to know if there was any news.
"I'll never get my lessons!" exclaimed Hattie petulantly, collecting her scattered belongings after one of these rushes to the door. "I wish to Heaven one of my fingers was a lead pencil!"
"Why don't you wish your tongue was one, Hat, then you wouldn't have to sharpen it," suggested Connie.
"I bet Miss Lady had my pencil," went on Hattie, ignoring Connie's comment. "She's never owned a pair of scissors, or a pencil, or a shoe-buttoner since she's been here. And look at those letters on the mantel! She'll never think about mailing them."
"What are they doing with black borders?"
"She bought a job lot of paper the other day, all colors and sizes, trying to be economical. She uses the mourning ones to pay the bills."
"Yes, and I'll have to be putting little pink love letters in big blue envelopes all winter. Say, Hat, do you suppose it would be all right if I called up Mr. Wicker to ask him how the trial is going?"
"Of course not. We'll hear as soon as there is anything to hear. I wish you'd hush talking and let me study."
Connie heroically refrained from speech for five minutes, then she announced:
"Do you know, I don't believe Miss Lady likes him!"
"Who? Mr. Wicker?"
"No, you silly,—Don."
"When did you stop saying Cousin Don, pray?"
"Oh, ages ago. She's always so quiet when he comes, and she goes up- stairs the first chance she gets. I think she's changed a lot since she first came, don't you?"
"Well, I guess you'd change, too, if you had married a sick man with three children, as poor as poverty, and a cook as cross as Myrtella."
"But she has Myrtella eating out of her hand. Imagine my marrying a man as old as Father!"
"If I had to marry, I'd rather marry Father than anybody else. But I've never seen the man yet that I'd be willing to marry."
"Oh, I have! I know ten right now that I'd marry in a minute."
"Connie Queerington! Who are the others beside Gerald and Cousin Don?"
Connie laughed. "Mr. Wicker is not as bad as he was. He must have taken chloroform and had his pompadour cut. Don says he is awfully clever."
"Anybody could be clever who took a whole day to compose each speech. I'll tell you what's the matter with Miss Lady; she is worrying herself sick over Father. Did she tell you what Doctor Wyeth told her?"
"That Father would have to give up his classes, and get away some where? But of course he can't do it."
"But he can! Miss Lady has rented Thornwood from the man who bought it, and we are all to go out there this spring."
"Heavens! That means frogs and crickets and whippoorwills, and a lonesome time for me."
"But think of Father!" said Hattie with her most virtuous air. "If it's perfectly quiet, perhaps he can finish his book."
"No, he won't," said Connie petulantly. "He may finish himself, but he'll never finish that book; he keeps on thinking of more to say, just like Mr. Melcher does when he prays. If it weren't for that stupid old book he might get well. Was that the telephone?"
It proved to be the side-door bell, which was rung by an old woman who had lost her husband and her front teeth, and was engaged in the precarious occupation of selling shoe-strings. She was one of the numerous proteges, who began to call on Miss Lady soon after breakfast, and kept up their visits through the day, to the exasperation of Myrtella Flathers, who spent her time devising means to rid the back hall of these incumbrances.
In this instance strategy was not required, for she was bidden to send the woman away. Such an unusual proceeding aroused her curiosity and she returned to the dining-room to peep through the door at her young mistress, who had been sitting motionless since breakfast with her elbows on the table, and her hands locked under her chin. It was evident that something was wrong, and Myrtella became so concerned that she at last decided to take action. The panacea she applied to all ailments, moral or physical, was a counter-irritant.
"Mis' Squeerington!" she ventured finally. "I hope you ain't fergot that it's Saturday mornin' an' you'd orter row the grocery man. He's a cortion, that's what he is, a-sendin' us Mis' Ivy's ribs, an' Mis' Logan's liver. It ain't a decent way to treat a old customer, an' he orter be told so. There never was a grocery man that was born into the world that didn't have to be rowed! They expect it, they look fer it, an' when they don't get it they feel it."
"I can't 'row' people, Myrtella; I don't know how," said Miss Lady listlessly.
"I'll learn you. You've picked up a lot more already than anybody would 'a' supposed you would when you first come. But one thing you ain't learned. When a lady goes to smilin' over the telephone, an' tellin' the butcher that she don't know one cut from another but she'll trust him to send her a nice piece, you kin count on it she's goin' to git a gristle. Compliments an' smiles may git some things, but it takes rowin' an' back-talk to git a good beefsteak!"
"I think I'll send you to the grocery to-day, Myrtella,—it—it may rain."
"It ain't goin' to rain before noon," Myrtella said authoritatively, in a tone that indicated her intention of stopping it immediately if it showed any intention of doing so. "It'll do you good to git out and walk a spell."
Miss Lady shook her head.
"Well, then you better let me send Bertie down here, he's makin' a awful racket in the nursery an' his pa'll be after him soon."
Bertie was induced to abandon a life of adventure on the footboard of his bed, by the suggestion that Miss Lady had something to tell him in the dining-room. He came tearing through the hall shouting, "Extras," at the top of his voice.
"Bertie, darling! Please don't," cried Miss Lady roused from her apathy. "Remember it's Saturday and Father's home."
"I wish he wasn't," said Bertie. "I hate a tiptoe house! When can I call extras?"
"When we get up to Thornwood. You and I will play all over the hills, and I'll teach you to be a real country boy."
"And can Chick be there, too?"
"Yes, and perhaps by that time Chick will have been to the hospital and can talk like other boys."
Bertie was standing on the back of her chair by this time, apparently trying to strangle her.
"And can we slide down the ice-house like you used to do? And will Uncle Jimpson call up the doodle-bugs out of the ground like he did when you was a little girl?"
"Listen!" cried Miss Lady suddenly starting up. "What is that?"
From the far end of the street came the sound, "Wuxtry! Here's your Wuxtry! All about—"
"It's just the newsboy I was being like," said Bertie. "What's the matter? What makes you shake so, Miss Lady?"
Myrtella thrust her head in the door. "Here comes that there Mrs. Ivy running 'cross the yard. She's good fer a hour."
But Mrs. Ivy did not seem to be good for anything by the time Miss Lady reached her. She was half reclining on a haircloth sofa in the front hall with a bottle of smelling salts to her nose and a newspaper in her hand.
"Oh, my dear!" she managed to gasp. "Such a frightful shock! So utterly unexpected!"
"Do you mean Don?" Miss Lady's lips scarcely moved as she asked the question.
"No, the bank! I was all alone in the house when I heard the boys calling the extras—Ah! my poor weak heart!"
"Brandy?" suggested Miss Lady anxiously.
Mrs. Ivy raised feeble but protesting eyes: "Never! The Angel of Death shall never find me with the odor of liquor on my lips. Could you send for some nitroglycerin?"
By the time Mrs. Ivy was revived, Connie and Hattie had joined the group in the hall, and the latter was reading aloud in awe-struck tones the account of the People's Bank failure. The age and reputation of the institution and the prominence of Basil Sequin as a local financier gave the subject grave significance.
"And to think that I should be involved!" wailed Mrs. Ivy. "I've only been treasurer of the W. A. Board for six weeks and this was my first investment! They told me to use my judgment, and I did the best I could! Only last Thursday I went to see Mr. Gilson the broker, you know, about investing the money we're collecting for building the Parish House. He said I had come at the right moment as he had just gotten hold of some of the People's Bank stock, 'gilt edged,' he called it, and I remember just what I said to him, I said, 'Mr. Gilson, I simply let Providence lead me, and it led me to your door!' and I bought it!" sobbed Mrs. Ivy; "forty shares!"
"I suppose Father's lost awfully," said Hattie, sitting round eyed and anxious on the steps.
"And all the Sequins, and Don," added Connie.
"It says that all the stockholders and most of the depositors stand to lose heavily," said Miss Lady, scanning the paper; "I must tell the Doctor at once."
She sped up the steps and knocked breathlessly at his study door. It was only at the second knock that she was bidden to enter.
The Doctor sat at his desk in a long, gray dressing-gown, with a rug across his knees: around him were ranged several straight-backed chairs on which were spread hundreds of pages of closely written manuscript. At his elbow on a stand was an immense dictionary, from which he lifted a pair of absorbed and preoccupied eyes.
"Doctor!" Miss Lady burst out impetuously, "the Bank has failed—the paper says—"
"If you please!" the Doctor raised an imploring hand; "don't tell me now. The news will keep and I am in a most critical stage of my summary. Today's work is important, very important. Kindly close the door."
Miss Lady stood in the hall without and stared at the drab-colored wallpaper. A fierce anger rose in her, not against the Doctor, but against that vampire work which was sucking all the vitality and sympathy and understanding out of him. She was eager to bear his burdens; she was willing to fight his battles; but it was hard to take his side single-handed against herself. She wanted love, and affection and sympathy, and she wanted a manly shoulder to weep on when the way became too hard. But the Doctor's slanting, scholarly shoulder afforded no resting-place for a world-weary head.
"Mis' Squeerington!" called Myrtella from the lower floor. "The grocery man didn't have no beets, and his new potatoes is hard as rocks, an' if I was you I'd go over to Smithers jes' to spite him out fer a spell. And I fergot to tell you that that there Mr. Wicker called you up a hour ago, an' sez the case was lost. I don't know what he meant. I hope he ain't lost it 'round here. Next thing I hear they'll be sayin' I took it!"
It is a depressing law of life that worries invariably hunt in packs. If it were just a matter of one yelping little annoyance that barked at your heels, you could frighten it away with a laugh; but when a ravenous horde gets on your trail with the grim determination of running you to earth, it is quite a different matter.
Donald Morley, pacing the terrace at Angora Heights on a certain dark night in March, felt the breath of the pursuing pack close upon him. The failure to win his case had been a serious blow not only to his pride, but to his faith in his fellow man. He had gone into the trial with the assured confidence of an innocent man who is still young enough to rely absolutely upon the justice of the law. In spite of the array of damaging evidence presented by the prosecuting attorney, and the opinionated egotism of Mr. Gooch which rendered him unpopular with judge and jury, Donald's victory was almost assured, when the rumor of the People's Bank failure swept the court room. In the instant wave of suspicion that rose against Basil Sequin, Donald's cause was lost. Half the men on the jury were directly, or indirectly, involved. The case was summarily disposed of and the smaller matter swallowed up in the larger.
Humiliated and chagrined as Donald was over his own position, he was equally concerned about the bank. The papers were full of disturbing innuendoes; people avoided speaking of it in his presence; distrust and suspicion lurked around the corners.
Donald paused at the end of the terrace and looked up at the dark massive pile of masonry above him. In every leering gargoyle and carved coping, he read the ruin of some humble home.
At the first hint of impending trouble, Mrs. Sequin had taken Margery and fled to Europe, leaving Mr. Sequin fighting with his back to the wall to meet the difficulties into which her extravagance had plunged him. "I have no fear for Basil," she assured her friends on leaving. "He'll straighten things out. Of course he'll be talked about, clever people always are, and the directors have been rather nasty. But he'll control the situation yet, you'll see."
And Mrs. Sequin's confidence was being justified. Basil Sequin was controlling the situation. He had emerged from the ruin with his finances less affected than his reputation.
Each time that Donald turned at the end of the long terrace, his eyes involuntarily sought a light that gleamed far below through the bare trunks of the trees. It was the light from Thornwood that once more threw its familiar beams across the Cane Run Road and up the gentle slope of Billy-goat Hill. He rested his arms on the balustrade and stood looking out into the night. There was a softness in the air, a smell of upturned earth, a faint whispering among the newly budded treetops that hinted of things about to be revealed.
Suddenly there was a strange fluttering in the air above him, a tremulous, expectant thrill. Looking up he saw a flock of birds, wheeling and circling above him, making ready to light. Night after night they had traveled, over forests and across dark rivers, valiantly beating their frail wings against the gale, one purpose urging them on, straight as an arrow through the silent air,—the longing to find their old haunts under the friendly shelter of the Hill, and there to keep their love trysts in the place called home.
Donald's throat contracted sharply. Never in those tumultuous days in Japan, nor in those desperate ones in Singapore had he wanted Miss Lady as he wanted her now. It was not her youth or her beauty that he was thinking of; it was the firm confident clasp of her hand, the unfaltering courage of her eyes, her words, "I do believe in you, Don, with all my heart and soul." He was like a starving man who must have bread even if it belongs to another. Before he knew it he was plunging down the footpath to the road.
Connie would be his excuse, although he had been rather conscience- stricken about Connie of late. She had developed a taste for exploring that beguiling land of Flirtation where the boundary lines have never been defined, and dangers are known to lurk beyond the borders. As an old and experienced adventurer he felt that he had already accompanied her too far.
As he reached Thornwood's big colonial gateway, he found some one alighting from a buggy.
"Hello, Wick!" he said. "Wait, I'll open it for you. I thought you were staying in town!" Noah removed a pair of unmistakably new tan gloves and opened the gate for himself.
"I am staying in town," he said distantly "Are you coming in here?"
"Yes, I think I will drop in for a little while, unless you have an engagement?"
Noah's pause was even longer than usual. "No," he drawled presently. "I can't say I have. Will you get in?"
Donald could not suppress a smile as he got in beside him, and noticed the grandeur of his toilet.
"You are getting awfully dressy these days, old chap. Who's the girl?"
"You know who it is."
"You surely don't mean Connie Queerington! Now, Wick, you want to go slow and not trifle with that girl. The first thing you know she will be falling in love with you.",
Noah's lip stiffened. "If you would leave her alone perhaps she might."
"What am I doing?"
"The same thing you've always done. Going with a girl just long enough to spoil her for every other fellow, then going off and forgetting all about her."
Donald looked in amazement at the angry face beside him.
"What in thunder do you mean by that, Wick?"
"What I say. I guess it hasn't been so long ago that we've both forgotten another instance." "See here, Wick," said Donald, his anger rising, "you'd better drop this. You don't know what you are talking about."
"I know you spoiled my chances once and you are not going to spoil them again. You've got to leave Miss Connie alone. You've got to promise me—"
"I promise you nothing."
They had reached the hitching block and Donald got out of the buggy and, not waiting for his companion, went up the walk to the house. The peace of the old place wrapped him round like the folds of a warm garment He forgot Noah, and the pursuing troubles; he forgot everything except that Thornwood, with all its memories and traditions, was for the present his, held in sacred trust until that time when he could give it back to the one who loved it best.
"Why, it's Cousin Don!" cried Connie who had heard the wheels and come to investigate. "I never was so glad to see anybody in my life. I thought it was Mr. Wicker!"
"Cheer up! He's hitching his horse at the block now."
"How tiresome! I thought we left him in town yesterday. I don't believe you are a bit glad to have us for a neighbor. Why didn't you come over last night? I haven't seen you for four days!"
"You haven't missed anything, Connie. I've been down and out."
"Everybody has! It's too stupid for words. Since the trial and the bank failure I haven't been able to get a smile out of anybody! I hope the Turtle won't be grumpy."
"Who is the Turtle?"
"Mr. Wicker. Hat calls him that, because he never lets go 'til it thunders. Aren't you coming in the parlor?"
"No, I'll give Wick the field to-night. I want to see your Father on business."
"That sounds interesting!" said Connie audaciously. "You might have spoken to me first!"
The Doctor was preparing to go up to bed when Donald entered the sitting-room, but he put down his candle and greeted him warmly.
"A phenix rising from his ashes!" he said. "I am glad to see that you have survived the trials of the past ten days. It is very kind of you to come over in the midst of your trouble to welcome us to our new quarters. You are not going to leave us, my dear?" this to Miss Lady who had risen at Donald's entrance.
"I was going to get your beef-tea."
"Oh, to be sure. I can't begin to tell you, Donald, how much I regret the decision in your case. How did it happen?"
Donald, whose hungry eyes were devouring every familiar detail of the homely fire-lit room, shrugged his shoulders. "Eleven jury-men were for acquittal, I am told, and the twelfth, a fellow named Jock Hibben talked them over."
"Jock Hibben? I know the man. A radical Socialist who has been giving us some trouble at the university. Quite an orator, I believe, but a fanatic. You have made a motion for a new trial?"
"It has been refused."
"Indeed! And you appeal it, of course?"
"The decision is bound to be reversed," the Doctor assured him, "and the second trial will go in your favor. I have never doubted the ultimate outcome. What is that scratching noise?"
Miss Lady, who was just entering, paused to listen, then she suddenly set the cup she carried on the table, and flung open the door.
A long, shaggy, disheveled dog, with small, sad eyes, and a stub of a tail, hurled himself upon her, and began rapturously to lick her hands.
"It's Mike," she cried joyously, sitting on the floor and gathering her muddy visitor into her arms. "I knew he'd find out we were home. Oh! you blessed, blessed dog!"
Mike, unable to restrain his transports, made a mad tour of the room, upsetting the stack of manuscript that the Doctor had neatly arranged on a stand beside him. On his second round he discovered the visitor whom he sniffed with increasing excitement.
Donald raised a forefinger, and tapped his knee. In an instant Mike remembered. Lifting his fore-paws, and dropping his head upon them, he answered the call to prayer.
Two pairs of eyes met involuntarily, and the owners smiled.
"Do put him out, my dear," urged the Doctor, who had stooped to pick up the scattered sheets of his manuscript. "This is the last volume of my series, Donald. You remember I was collecting data for it when you were at the university. I had expected to publish it this spring, but it will have to be postponed now."
Donald winced. "On account of the bank failure, I suppose?"
"Well, yes. Basil advises a curtailment of all expenditure for the present. However, it may be just as well to publish in the fall. That will give me three more months on the revision."
"I hope you were not seriously involved, Doctor?"
"No, no, I imagine not," said the Doctor vaguely as he made a marginal correction on one of the sheets. "Basil and I have been so much occupied that we have scarcely had a chance to discuss the matter. He said I might possibly lose something, but that he would protect my interests. I trust you are not one of the losers?"
"No," Donald said shortly, "I lost nothing." Then after a pause during which he stared at the floor, he looked up. "Doctor, I want to consult you about something. Your standards of right and wrong seem to me a bit surer than most people's. I'm in trouble and I want your advice."
He was looking at the Doctor as he spoke, but he was acutely conscious of the slender figure that stood with her back to them before the open fire.
"You see," he said, plunging into his subject, "a week before the bank failed I found that I might need a lot of ready money before I got through with the trial. So I sold all my People's Bank stock."
"That was fortunate."
"But, Doctor! Don't you see? At the time I sold the shares they weren't worth the paper they were printed on!"
"But you were ignorant of this."
"Of course; but does that alter the fact that I took money for stock that was worthless?"
The Doctor rubbed his hands together thoughtfully. For once he was not prepared to give an immediate answer to a question concerning a moral issue.
"On the spur of the moment I should advise you to refund the money, but I do not know if such advice is wise. The fact is, neither you nor I are sufficiently versed in financial matters to know what is customary in such cases. What does your brother-in-law advise?"
"I have had no conversation with him since the bank failed. He stays in town nearly every night, and you can imagine what his days are."
"Well, I should put the matter before him, explain my scruples, and then act unquestioningly on his advice. It has been my rule in life, when my own judgment did not suffice, to consult the highest available authority upon that given subject and abide by it. Basil Sequin, in spite of this unfortunate failure, is undoubtedly our ablest financier. I can only bid you do as I have done; leave everything entirely to him."
"I shouldn't!" cried Miss Lady, wheeling about with a return of her old, childlike, impetuous manner; "I shouldn't leave it to anybody. I'd buy back the stock, every share of it. I wouldn't keep money for which I'd given nothing! You ought to see Miss Ferney Foster! She bought bank stock only last week; gave all the money she'd made on her pickles for ten years, and when she found the bank had failed, she went out of her head. I've been there to-day and she didn't know me."
"Who sold her the stock?"
"A broker named Gilson."
"It was my stock," Donald cried "Of course she's got to be paid back! And all the rest of them. I'll buy back every share of it, if it takes my last dollar!"
"Will it take all you have?" Miss Lady scanned his face anxiously.
"Yes, and more. I made an investment with some of the money before I knew the bank was in trouble; then there's the double liability law. It wouldn't matter so much if it weren't for the trial."
"Your sister, of course, will be ready to help you. Or has she, too, lost?"
"No," said Donald, his lips tightening, "she hasn't lost. She's had no stock in the bank for a year. But I shan't call upon her."
"Because she opposed your course so violently? Oh, I see. A point of honor on which I quite agree with you. But you are not going under, Donald. We will see to that. I am not a wealthy man, as you know. There have been times recently when the future looked very dark. But this little lady has steered us into calmer waters. If you should, in the course of the next few months, be in need of a reasonable sum, I am happy to say we will be in a position to accommodate you."
Donald gripped his hand. "I shan't call on you, Doctor. But once I'm through with this accursed trial, I'll try to justify your belief in me."
The tall clock in the hall gave a preliminary wheeze, then hiccoughed nine times violently. The Doctor carefully arranged his voluminous papers in a shabby, brown portfolio, and rose with an effort.
"You will excuse me now if I bid you good night? My physician has become rather arbitrary in regulating my hours. Keep up your courage, my boy; that courage that 'scorns to bend to mean devices for a sordid end.' I admire the course you have taken, I admire you. Good night to you both."
They watched him go, with his tall, stooped figure, and his fine, serious eyes that saw life only through the stultifying medium of books. Then they looked at each other.
"I'll call Connie," Miss Lady said, moving to the door.
"Just a minute, please."
She came back reluctantly, and stood with her hands clasped on the back of a chair, breathing quickly.
"Do you remember," Donald asked, standing in front of her and speaking in a low, tense voice, "the last time we stood in this room, and the promises I made you? Well, I've kept them. I've fought like the devil,—You don't know what it means, you can't know. But I've kept them. Now I want to tell you that I've got to break over. You are right about the bank-stock money. It's not mine. I'll pay it back to- morrow. But more money has to come from somewhere to carry on the trial. There's only one chance I can think of. I've got to enter Lickety Split for the Derby."